Reconciling freedom and nature

Most so-called “deniers” have in common a strong sense of not wanting the government poking its nose into their lives; of wanting small government; of not having people interfering, telling them what to do. And they really don’t like taxes.

This is right-wing or liberal thinking. And it has trouble accepting and handling environmental problems. Interestingly this kind of thinking doesn’t preclude addressing social problems – but rather than addressing them through government it hopes to benefit from charities and religious orders seeing to social problems, and from the simple fact of people being nice and kind to each other. Liberals say that government isn’t the right vehicle to address them. So liberalism can work, in the context of social problems, if people are enlightened enough to consider their fellow men. That kind of social enlightenment is broadly present in much of the world; it might be part of human nature.

But the case of environmental problems is different from that of social problems. Often liberals sniff at environmental problems. Partly, perhaps, because they have difficulty empathising with those affected by such problems – the people or species affected might be a long way away or only hypothetical future beings. Partly, perhaps, because they have difficult with the notion of the commons. The commons (air, water, etc) are by definition shared. And liberalism doesn’t like forced sharing. So to share commons without some government imposition requires an exceptional level of enlightenment in the population. This is a level of enlightenment a step above the enlightenment which leads us to treat our fellow men well.

Perhaps because of this liberals tend to grasp at any straw which might help them deny that there is an environmental problem, especially a biggie like climate change. Because they think that the only political solutions are of the type which are distasteful to them; that is, ones which require greater government interfering.

So, a big challenge for liberal people is to figure out policies which (a) let people keep the freedom which they treasure and (b) still cause nature to be protected. If that is impossible, then it shows that liberalism, without compromise, might be an unviable philosophy if we want to protect nature. But if it is possible, then it could be a big thing for man and nature.

Why is this important? First, politicians (around the world) only have a weak mandate to act on climate change. One of the big reasons why they have a weak mandate to act is the power of liberal-thinking lobbies. But to get these lobbies to accept the need to act, they have to be shown that climate change policy does not have to be about taxing enterprise to death.

Second, even if everyone agreed we have to act, we’d then discover that we haven’t even started the debate on climate change policy yet. If politicians took the scientists’ recommendations as the basis of policy, they wouldn’t have a clue what to do. And when those recommendations are adopted, then we will have an almighty political battle about what to do. Today all they can think of is tax and “cap and trade” – well, liberals think those are socialist-type policies (they don’t like taxation and rationing). Shouldn’t they be coming up with something better, then?

So, it’s important for liberals, being influential, to realise that addressing climate change does not imply a socialist takeover (which, roughly, is what millions genuinely think especially in influential America); and it’s important for liberals to start thinking very busily about other ways of helping nature which are more acceptable to their instincts of freedom.

In short, can we have politics which reconcile nature and human freedom? Or do we need a new enlightenment? And what if that takes 200 years?

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